I was walking around the district on the third night of the end-of-August 2010
heat wave and a gentleman disagreed with me that what we were experiencing was unusual. "If not now then when should it be 90?" he asked. My sweetie also remembers the sweltering dog days of autumn. The reality, though, is that in Portland the temperature does not go over 90 very often, and if it does it does not stay there. We get temperatures that hot three days in a row only about once every three years. It has stayed over 90 four days in a row in Portland only five times since 1940. This was but the fourth time it stayed over 90 five days in a row. (These statistics courtesy of The Portland Daily Sun, September 1, 2010.) And in answer to that gentleman's question about "when," a heat wave in Portland has never before extended into September, to the best of my knowledge. That gentleman and my sweetie are wrong - what happened in August and September 2010 had never happened in Portland before.
A couple of events in a single location does not prove a global trend, our recent heat might be just the variation we have to expect in a climate that is quite variable. In this instance, however, the trend is clear. For the planet as a whole, of the 12 hottest years on record and arguably for centuries or millennia before that as well 11 were the years from 2001 through 2011 (United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center). 2000 is #16; 1999 is #14; 1998 is #3; 1997 is #13. Of the other years in the 20 hottest in record none is before 1987. How are we doing this year? Again looking just at Portland in March we set five records for highest temperature on a given day. We had two days in a row in March over 80 - know when the last time that happened? never. The planet is getting hotter.
That we sometimes experience extra-ordinary coldness disproves nothing. Global warming is not the only problem - it is but one way the problem is being demonstrated. The problem is climate change generally. We are also seeing climate change in shifting rainfall patterns, and in an increasing number of stronger storms. And in coldness when we expect hot. All of these are devastating. What Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans was horrendous, and Katrina was not the worst of recent weather disasters, disasters that had not been occurring in the past as regularly as they are now. Shifting rainfall can create breathtaking flooding in areas not able to accommodate such deluges, as happened to Nashville in 2009. The bigger concern is that much too much or much too little rain is fatal for agriculture, as can be changes in either direction from normal temperatures.
Few scientists are disagreeing that our weather patterns are changing; the debate, if there is one, is the degree to which the changes are man-made. Some argue that what we are experiencing is merely a cycle that should be expected. It is true that the ice age occurred with no help from homo sapiens. It is also true that the ice age was catastrophic for humans; a new ice age would almost certainly not be survivable by those at the temperature extremes. With humans now possessing the military ability to kill ourselves off a new ice age would almost certainly trigger the explosions that will remove us from the planet, as desparation over ever dwindling resources overrides the instinct to survive. Those arguing for an unavoidable cycle are essentially dooming us to unavoidable extinction. If you like that way of thinking keep doing it.
But what happened zillions of years ago can not be compared with what humans have been doing within the last 100 years. If you eat junk food once a week you'll probably be fine, but if you consume a steady diet of junk food your body is going to break down (look at Supersize Me). This is not in dispute by anyone except fast food executives. What we are doing to the planet is feeding it a steady diet of junk food in the form of pollutants and expecting no adverse consequences.
Arguing against human causality in climate change is like arguing that flicking lit matches onto a pile of newspapers is not likely to increase risk of fire since lightning is likely to claim the house anyway. Statistically, lightening does not strike that many houses that are reasonably protected. But whether or not a house might be consumed by fire eventually the chances that a house will be consumed by fire sooner rather than later increases the more matches we flick, the drier the papers. Those arguing against human causality are defending their right to flick matches. Not in my house you don't; and not on my planet. You don't need to flick lit matches; and we don't need to continue treating the earth as our paper pile. It hardly matters whether human action is positively definitely causing what we are experiencing. What matters is that it is quite possible that it is; and that it is relatively easy to stop our destructive practices. All we should be talking about is what we can be doing differently.
Alternative energy is but one thing we need to be doing. While there is reason to think that from a survival standpoint it is not the most important thing it is what catches most of the headlines so I'll start here.
Fossil fuels - coal, oil, natural gas - are relatively stable when left underground where they have existed for millennia. They are relatively dangerous when brought to the surface and when they are burned. Fossil fuels are a big part of the junk food we are feeding our planet. In the foreseeable future it is not clear how we are going to eliminate these fuels altogether; however, we can and must look for and look at alternatives for as much of our fossil fuel use as possible.
I'll start with what is not an intelligent option, at least at this time. Ethanol. It takes more energy to get energy out of corn than is produced. That is, we have a net energy loss in turning corn into fuel. Plus, we are turning land that is needed for food into land to produce energy, contributing to global hunger. There is one reason and one reason only why ethanol is being used on a big scale - because big corporations are making big money out of it in the form of government subsidies. And are paying politicians to let them continue. Ethanol is a loser now. End of discussion.
Ethanol is not the same as bio-diesel. Diesel engines can be easily modified to run on cooking oil left over from deep-fat frying. Unlike growing corn to make fuel bio-diesel uses waste products that already exist. It is an alternative fuel based on recycling. This is the kind of alternatives we need. Cars with diesel engines can be made to pull up to the pump at a fast food restaurant rather than at a gas station. Think about that.
Bio-diesel is not feasible on a large scale. Solar power is. It is renewable and relatively clean. There are costs involved in going solar, but the costs are affordable when measured against the costs of remaining dependent on fossil fuels.
In Maine we can also be looking at tidal power, wind power, and, if we are careful about how we harness it, power generated from river current. These are all renewable energy sources, meaning that the supply is steady and readily found. They are politically safe, meaning that we do not need to engage in war to capture the supplies, as we do with oil. These are by no means the only alternatives, they are some of the alternatives Maine absolutely must commit itself to researching immediately.
Recycling and Reducing.
Most of the talk concerning climate change focuses on alternative energy because it asks little of consumers or voters, the burden is on government. The real issue, however, is human behavior. We can survive many more years consuming the same amount of fossil fuels if we do what we can to reduce the amount and nature of pollutants we emit. We will not survive even by cutting our fossil fuel consumption in half if we continue to destroy the atmosphere, the polar ice caps (I won't go into it here but the importance of the ice caps in maintaining a safe climate can not be overstated), and the eco-system we depend on for food. Human behavior needs to change immediately. As in yesterday.
For years Maine, like all American governments, has been waging a foolish, futile, expensive and destructive war on drugs for no other reason than because it sounds good. If we really want to help society we'll stop worrying about whether someone who is able to maintain a job is shooting up in his own house (and stop locking him up at a taxpayer cost of $44,000 per year per inmate), and we'll wage a War on Pollution.
There is nothing wrong with Portland's pay-per-blue-bag-waste-disposal system. Disposing of waste costs money, and there is no reason I can think of why you should have to pay to dispose of my garbage. (I won't go into this here either, though you can contact me and we can talk about it - from a societal standpoint waste disposal is quite different from public education. I am willing to share in the cost of educating your children even though I have no children of my own.) We can debate how best to do this - charge actual cost; charge increasing costs per bag as an incentive to not fill bags (my preference); let the city make a profit on all bags to help fund other programs - but all cities and dumps should be looking at charging for waste disposal. Those who don't want to pay will create less garbage. Even when my family had five people in it (the oldest son has left the nest) we rarely, if ever, filled more than one bag per week. Often a bag got through two weeks, or two bags covered three weeks. This is not a I-used-to-walk-five-miles-to-school-you-can-too share the suffering argument. This is a realistic statement of what a person or family concerned about reducing waste can do without making life markedly more difficult. And if we are serious, we will use the resources we had been using to go after drug consumers to go after those destroying the planet by avoiding the pay-per-bag system. It might not be any more successful than our war on drugs though common sense says it will be - big bags of garbage are a lot harder to hide than little packets of powder - but at least we will be doing something to try to save our future.
Maine had discussed setting emission standards for cars as part of the inspection process. That got bogged down in political sloppiness, bureaucratic red tape, and then shelved. Bring it back. There is no excuse or room for a vehicle getting under ten miles per gallon, or even twenty miles per gallon. New cars not meeting minimum emission standards should not be sold in Maine. If they come in from other states so be it, but Maine does not need to add to the problem. Used cars that don't meet standards don't pass inspection. I am quite sensitive to the plight of the poor who can not afford to replace junkers with something better. Find ways of helping. The recent fuel-consumption-upgrade was nothing more than a windfall for new car companies. Implement a program that will not simply make incremental improvements but serious improvements.
When I eat in a conventional sit-down restaurant my meal comes on a plate that is washed and used again. Items at fast-food places are unnecessarily individually wrapped. This is insanity. Businesses that create excessive waste in their packaging or production should be charged. Fast food restaurants may pass the costs on to the customers - customers will have the option of not buying there anymore. If such places lose enough business they will either change their practices or leave Maine. The jobs offered by McDonalds and Burger King pay too little to support families on as is. Losing those jobs will not strip families of self-sufficiency they formerly had, and it will cost Maine less to provide additional support to families, if necessary, than to clean up excess waste.
Public transportation is crucial. Find how to make it work and get it done everywhere it can be. Train, bus, whatever.
And set pollution standards for industries and enforce them. No carbon-emission trading, which shifts who gets to pollute but does not reduce total pollution. Set standards and enforce them. Wars on drugs target happy pot heads - let's go after the ones who are really doing damage to our world, and our children's world and their children's world.
That is, if we want a world for our children. If not, we can continue flicking lit matches onto piles of dry newspapers in our living rooms.
The Peak Oil Problem
There is a theory or a documented fact, depending on one's point of view, that oil supplies are running out. Whether or not oil remains underground has no effect on climate change, except that the more we burn the worse off the climate is. The sooner we stop using oil the better chance we'll have to re-establish a healthy climate stability. But if oil does run out life as we know it will change dramatically if we do not have replacements ready. We have no ready replacements for oil in many of our energy needs, and if oil runs out before replacements are found activities requiring oil will stop. No cars or airplanes, to name but one.
Is oil running out? Common sense says: of course. There is no unlimited supply of anything. Some things recycle naturally, such as water. New trees can grow. But used oil does not come back as usable oil, and even if new oil supplies are being created we are using it far faster than it is being replenished. Common sense says that the more oil we use the less there will be left.
The debate is about how quickly we are going to reach that point. My opinion is that the end is already in sight. This does not mean that we can see the day that we will have used up every drop of existing oil; it means that the cost of extracting remaining supplies will be unacceptably expensive or unacceptably dangerous, which is essentially the same as all usable
supplies being gone. I believe this because human conduct says that the powers that be believe it. Given the disaster that has just occurred in the Gulf of Mexico why are we still talking about off-shore drilling if safe reservoirs remain available to us? Given that it uses more energy to create fuel from corn than is created why are we trying to use corn as an oil substitute? Why are we returning to coal tar, a substance rejected as unusable just a decade ago? Given the human and dollar costs of trying to remain in control of the Middle East and its huge oil reserves why are we continuing to do so? These are the actions of the desperate, not the confident.
But as with climate change it should not be necessary to prove that oil is disappearing - it should be enough for those reasonably careful to accept that it may be
disappearing, to try to protect ourselves against the possibility that it is. We can plan for the future, or we can (try to) live with the future that is left to us. We can continue burning oil as if it will last forever, or we can treat oil as a limited valuable resource. The climate would prefer that we use less oil; our grandchildren and maybe even our children might wish we had.
Maine needs to make addressing climate change a priority!
While I was out campaigning in 2010 I had a very depressing experience with a resident of my district. I don't want to include it here in my policy statement on climate change, but anyone interested in reading about it can click here.
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